I swear on a stack of copies that it’s a blistering little classic: “Lord of the Flies” for a generation of young people left to fend for themselves on their parents’ rapidly warming planet… “A Children’s Bible” moves like a tornado tearing along an unpredictable path through our complacency. The novel works so effectively because it’s an allegory that constantly resists the predictable messaging of allegory. Millet’s wit and her penchant for strange twists produce the kind of climate fiction we need: a novel that moves beyond the realm of reporting and editorial, a story that explores how alarming and baffling it feels to endure the destruction of one’s world.
Take this book, eat it up.
You can read the rest of the review, which swerves breathtakingly between garden-variety midwit-ism and rank stupidity, at The Bezos Blog, but I think you get the idea: A Children’s Bible is a book very much of the moment, very much awarded, very much read by The Right People. Last night I took ninety-three minutes away from Call Of Duty: Warzone to read the thing. This was not wasted time; not in the slightest. As a work of fiction, A Children’s Bible is little better than its vampires-and-magic-brooms bookstore contemporaries — but as a lens both into current thinking and my own thought process, it’s pretty good.
(Warning: spoilers for this book after the jump).
This work of “environmental fiction” is really two books in one. The first half is a charming evocation of childhood under the tyranny-via-indifference of a profoundly dissipated intellectual/creative class. One small problem: Lydia Millett is a contemporary of mine, being fifty-two years old. Her characterizations of lazy, narcissistic, sensualist moms/dads/step-s are spot on for the Woodstock generation; I’m given to understand, by people who would know, that she absolutely nails the quicksilver ephemerality of childhood relationships among the effectively unparented in the pre-Internet, pre-smartphone era. (Your humble author cannot claim any sort of college-Brahmin pedigree, being the child of a Marine captain and a WAC captain who probably didn’t fall into any of the original three categories mentioned by Rick Nielsen in his first draft of the lyrics for “Surrender”. Yet I spent a few days once at a lake with a friend whose parents were dead and who had free run of the place, courtesy of feeble grandparents. I remember the thrill of being able to do anything, and I remember the girl I met on our second night there, and I remember how we seemed to live a whole life in one curfew-free night. I can only imagine what it was like for the kids of the privileged who lived that Less Than Zero dream every single day.)
Yet there’s little here to place the book in the near future, where it supposedly occurs, or even the present. These parents are straight out of Updike’s Couples or any John Barth (no relation) novel. They have the money, leisure, time, and louche approach to community that all disappeared by the time Ms. Millet and I became old enough to be the parents described here. The central idea of the book, that you have about ten families all renting a mansion together for a summer-long fling of friendship and sex, is essentially impossible in The Current Year of always-at-work-via-email, and is transparently drawn from childhood memories of “The Big Chill”.
So much for authenticity, but this is a work of fiction, not a documentary. Some of it is meant to shock: one young girl describes herself as being the foremost expert in “one-minute handjobs”, while two other girls agree to a game of oral-sex Spin-The-Bottle out of sheer boredom. Again, however, it’s the kind of shock that feels as nostalgic now as the once-shocking movie “Kids”, released in 1995 and no doubt quite titillating for Ms. Millett, who would have been twenty-seven at the time and quite ready to be shocked by the contrast between her own rose-tinted memory of teenage sexuality and the chilly reality of this (or any other) time.
The whole book is told in the first person by Eve, a sixteen-ish girl who is only indifferently educated but who nonetheless feels superior to the professors and artists and movie producers who make up her parents’ social set. Raised in an environment where sex screams from every screen, she is alternately neo-puritanical and utterly blase on the topic, easily disgusted by the fumblings of the parents and essentially incapable of arousal herself. (This feels semi-legit to me, by that way; today’s sixteen-year-old girls have surely been conditioned by their impending eligibility for SeekingArrangement and OnlyFans to look at sex in a mostly transactional manner, just as their male equivalents expect all possible sexual interactions to bear the indelible stamp of every Internet-porn trope available.) She makes it plain that she’s absolutely willing to suck a dick, any dick, in the cause of general amusement, but she finds it hard to be attracted to anyone.
Her true love is reserved for her nine-year-old younger brother Jack. Hugely precocious, able to spiritually communicate with animals and entice owls into captivity without a trap, Jack also reveals himself to be a prophet of sorts when he is given a copy of a “Children’s Bible” by the token white-trash member of their parental group. Jack effortlessly sees the lies in the Bible and understands that
- “God” is really Nature;
- “Jesus” is really Science.
Influenced by the stories of the Bible and his own superior understanding, Jack proceeds to embark on all sorts of adventures, from which it is Eve’s responsibility to rescue him.
While the kids are out on a self-chaperoned three-day beach party with some other kids who have a yacht and who have also landed on the same beach by chance, an ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE occurs. Although Ms Millet is nominally some sort of environmental expert, this ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE is nonetheless ignorantly drawn more or less from the opening scenes of the Hollywood idiot-thriller “The Day After Tomorrow”. There are massive storms that hit everywhere at once, followed by a terrible plague that only the children, with their environmental sensitivities, can see coming in time to run away.
The rest of the book is an odd combination of fantasy, snark, Deliverance stereotypes, and matriarchy chic. It’s no trick to figure out which movie or TV show provides each of Ms. Millet’s ideas. The ragtag redneck army with a charismatic, Chaotic Evil leader? The Postman! The crew of “trail angels” who provide quiet but caustic advice? Wild! The hyper-powerful, Rommel-esque old woman who can cause attack helicopters to appear out of thin air and who burns her enemies alive? It’s obviously one or more of Kathleen Chalfant‘s military/government/CIA characters.
Some of the arrant dependence on trope can perhaps be blamed on Ms. Millet’s choice of narrator. Having an unspectacular teen girl be one’s voice means that one gets even less variation in mood and language than what Salinger permitted Holden Caulfield. There’s a true economic reason for Millet to do this: by having the narrator be a young-adult-fiction reader, she ensures that the book is a natural and easy transition for the people who typically read YA trash. It can be Your First Grown-Up Environmental Novel, because it contains no words of more than three syllables. Those of us who didn’t come here directly from Hogwarts, however, will find it grating and then some.
Alright, enough about what the book is. What does it mean? This is where I started to feel some authentic kinship with Ms. Millet. She’s written a book about the almost unfathomable gap between the people who caused the coming environmental crisis and the people who will endure it. In one of the novel’s most darkly perceptive moments, the parents decide to cope with the fact of a Category 4 hurricane over their heads by all taking Ecstasy and engaging in group sex while the horrified children avert their eyes. You can see what Millet is going for here: a generation stoned on cheap energy and adjustable-rate mortgages on their children’s futures, merrily skipping towards a Gomorrah that won’t happen until they’ve all had all of their fun.
Let me state for the record that I have little to no belief in any man-made future environmental collapse, at least not one that arrives all at once. When I look at “climate science” I see sloppy data and massive hand-waving efforts that have the combined credibility of supermarket astrology. The end goal of “climate science” appears to be the justification of a massive wealth gap between the elites and everyone else. To prevent climate change, you will eat nothing but beans, or maybe bugs! You will own nothing, but you’ll be happy! You’ll micro-live in a micro-space! You will walk in walkable communities and live most of your life online, while the Gulfstreams of your betters fly above at 38,000 feet. You will have no more social mobility, and no more caloric resources, than an Egyptian pyramid pusher of five thousand years ago. Who decides the distribution of wealth in this environmentally responsible future? How will we know if we are destined to be the bug-eaters of tomorrow or the Gulfstream-fliers? Good news! We’ve already decided! Everything’s already been set in stone! Now drink your Soylent, Primeworker — Amazon only allows a five-minute lunch during the holiday season!
Yet when I read A Children’s Bible I’m reminded of a different tragedy, to wit: My parents’ generation was handed an America that was far from perfect, but serviceable nonetheless — and they burned it to the ground. They cranked open the taps on “free trade”, illegal labor, outsourcing, pornography, deviant philosophy, amoral media. Their long march through the institutions turned the Ivy League into clown colleges even as our public schools were perverted into ideological stamping plants. Having said “Hell NO, We Won’t Go!” to Vietnam despite the obvious correctness of the “domino theory”, they then nodded sagely at a Forever War in Iraq and Afghanistan that, for the first time in American history, would give 18-year-olds the chance to lose their legs in the same goat-infested villages that blew off their fathers’ arms a full generation prior.
(A note to my beloved Boomer readers: This is not to say that any of you are bad people, or indeed that any individual Boomers are bad people. For every Bill Ayers or William Calley, there were probably a dozen folks who are a credit to humanity. Yet the overall effect of the generation cannot be measured by its members. The so-called “Greatest Generation” contained millions of men, for example, who thought it no crime to beat their wives or children bloody. That doesn’t mean they didn’t win World War II.)
Almost everyone I know of my generation is of the opinion that America probably “peaked” around 1990 or so. It’s not just childhood nostalgia, although there is some of that. It’s the awareness that, to quote Daniel Day-Lewis, someone drank our milkshake. And by “drank” I mean “paid virtually nothing for”, and by “milkshake” I mean “real estate”. Virtually every major change in society we’ve seen in the past thirty years has boiled down to a single, relentless goal: reduce the cost of labor. That’s it. That’s our whole lives. The Greatest Generation fought Tojo; the Boomers fought labor costs. The resulting devastation far exceeds that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We lost everything in that battle, but the most important casualty was the American family, which has been assassinated with military precision. I grew up in neighborhoods that swarmed with three, four, nine children per household, presided over by intact couples. Now we are so atomized that some of us hardly even notice the lockdowns, barely suffer from the new Orwellian rules. So they closed the churches, the neighborhood bars, the Lions Club? You didn’t go anyway. Don’t worry. The Internet is still here, ready to fulfill your every need with an impersonal and mechanical hand. Why would you need to go outside?
Therefore, dear reader, I submit to you that perhaps Ms. Millet is, in fact, the most brilliant novelist of our generation, and that this book is perhaps a razor-keen allegory for the non-environmental destruction of our country at the hands of spectacular narcissists. We are their permanent and infantile children. Something was taken from us, but we cannot quite grasp what it is. We can only see it in brief peripheral flashes, fading memories of a world where we existed as a national community rather than as a tragedy of the commons. A world of shared assumptions, a known and trusted ethos, one where not every single public interaction at a fast-food restaurant or auto-parts store or bank was accompanied by a dread foreknowledge of the incompetence and hostility to come. Where you held an object in your hands, turned it over, and saw that it was made by people much like you, in a place not so far away. A place where you were part of society’s fabric, not a threat to be neutralized or an object to be humiliated.
In the contemplation of this, I can understand the rage and hostility that permeates A Children’s Bible. Not for blindness in the face of a looming catastrophe, but in the passive enabling of a catastrophe already passed. Nor for the creation of a carbon-dioxide menace, but for the avaricious yet feckless assembly of a house divided which, like the Gilded Age mansion of Millet’s book, will not survive the storm to come.